Volcanoes, reunions and continued conflict in Korea…

From Mongolia we flew to South Korea and after over 10 months of searching, we finally found Seoul! Compared to most other countries in Asia, South Korea was extremely developed. After a few weeks in Mongolia, we marvelled at the clean streets, modern shops and pristine western toilets! The culture was very respectful and the people were incredibly friendly and fun.

On our second day, we did a day trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), at the border of North and South Korea. The DMZ has been an area of permanent stand off between the North and South for over 60 years, since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Our guides were the U.S. military, who took us to the JSA (Joint Security Area), where the Republic of Korea (ROK) Soldiers stand face to face with the North Korean Soldiers. We could see the North Korean Soldiers facing us from in front of the buildings opposite us and more peering out at us from the windows. The tension was palpable. We were able to walk into the blue UN building in the centre, which serves as a meeting room between North and South. We walked around the table to the far end of the meeting room and in the photo below we are officially standing in North Korea!

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We visited a number of other sights in the DMZ, starting with a viewpoint from which we could see into North Korea. From the viewpoint you could see Kijong-dong village, which is also known as ‘Propaganda Village,’ due to propaganda about ‘The Great Leader’ being projected from loud speakers for 20 hours a day. The houses in the village are thought to be fake and uninhabited. Many of the doors and windows are just painted on and at night, the lights shining through the buildings, suggest that they have no internal floors. Towering over the village is a giant flagpole. In the 1980s the South erected a 98m high flagpole and the North immediately responded by building a 160m one, which is the 4th highest in the world.

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We saw ‘the bridge of no return,’ where prisoners had crossed into North Korea, never to return again. From there we went to Dorasan Station, the last station in the South, but with rail links through to Pyongyang. One day the South hopes that trains will run through to the North, but for now the large modern station lies empty. After lunch we visited another observatory and then went to ‘The Third Tunnel.’ The North Koreans built this, as well another tunnels, in preparation to invade the South, but it has now been found and blocked off. The tunnel ceiling was low and you had to wear a helmet to protect your head. Due to malnutrition in the North, it is now thought that the average height of North Koreans is some 3 inches shorter than the South Koreans. Visiting the DMZ was a surreal experience and one we will never forget. Shells fired by the North just a couple of days ago, show that sadly this 60 year conflict is still a serious situation.

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Back in Seoul, we spent a few days exploring the city. We saw traditional Korean houses at the Bukchon Hanok village, walked around the 1988 Olympic Stadium, relaxed outside the City Hall, got lost at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and sat with our feet in the stream, along with the locals, at the Cheong-gye-cheon. We had a day exploring the ornate royal palaces Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. We took a tour of the Emperor’s Secret Garden and watched the colourful changing of the guard ceremonies. At night, we went up the Namsan Tower, for spectacular views of the glittering city.

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Whilst we were in Seoul, we met up with Jisu and Sohyeon, two friendly girls we had met on our Mongolia trip. We went out for a traditional Korean lunch in Gangnam and tried lots of interesting dishes. After lunch, we went out for Bing-Su, a much-loved Korean dessert, made from shaved ice and topped with sweet beans or fruit. Afterwards, Alex danced Gangnam Style outside Gangnam Station, to the amusement of a few onlookers!

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From Seoul we travelled to Andong, where we spent a day visiting the Hahoe Folk Village. The village was full of traditional Hanok houses, surrounded by paddy fields and a meandering river. From there we took a bus to Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient Silla Dynasty, which ruled the Korean Peninsula for nearly 1000 years. The town is built around 190 ancient burial mounds, which on the outside are huge rounded grassy mounds. Inside are the remains of Silla Kings, buried with vast riches. We visited the National Museum and the famous Cheonmachong Tomb. We also did a day trip to the Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto, where we hand-fed some inquisitive wild chipmunks. The next day, we travelled South to Busan and then flew to Jeju Island.

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Jeju is a picturesque volcanic island off the South coast of Korea. On our first day there we celebrated our 5th Wedding Anniversary. We had a walk along the Promenade and went to see the Yongdu-am ‘Dragon Head Rock.’ In the evening we went out for a delicious meal, followed by some drinks in a rooftop bar. Jeju Island is full of beautiful natural volcanic features, with an impressive set of 360 volcanoes. We climbed the Seongsan Ilchulbong turf volcano, which is just 182m high, but has an unusual grass covered crater. The photos from the top don’t do it justice, so here is a link to an aerial shot, to show its full scale… https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/61/Seongsan_Ilchulbong_from_the_air.jpg

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The next day we went to Manjanggul, the world’s longest system of lava-tube caves. The caves are over 13km long and in some places 30m high. They are full of interesting lava formations, including lava rafts and columns.

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That evening we met up with Gun and Hyeji, a fun Korean couple who had been on our trip in Mongolia. We had dinner at a Korean Barbecue restaurant, which served the local speciality, black-skinned pork, accompanied by large shots of beer and Soju!
The next day we nursed our hangovers with a relaxed day at the Hyeopjae beach. Korean beaches are interesting places, where locals don’t sunbathe, but instead huddle under beach umbrellas to protect their white skin. Swimming in the sea consists of floating in rubber rings, or on miscellaneous inflatable sea creatures. When we swam and the beach was at its busiest, we could hardly move for the mass of inflatables!

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Before we left Korea to return to England, we felt we had one last mountain to climb (literally!) So, for our final challenge, we decided to climb Hallasan, the highest mountain in South Korea. The ascent was a tough 9.6km up a rocky path. Views of the volcano and the crater lake from the top were shrouded in mist, but we were still extremely happy to reach the top!

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From Jeju, we flew back to Seoul, where we spent the last night of our epic adventure. The next day, after nearly 11 months, 13 countries and countless incredible experiences, we started our final journey back to England…

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